Emerging Ace

Alvarez leading Lansing's rotation

Henderson Alvarez might have been one of the best kept secrets in the minor leagues. Not anymore.

The 19-year-old Alvarez burst onto the scene with low Class A Lansing, wowing observers around the Midwest League with his power arm, deadly changeup and poise on the mound. Alvarez has been the workhorse of Lansing's staff, ranking third in the league in innings pitched while his 3.54 ERA was the best among Lugnuts starters who'd been with the team all season.

But success hasn't always come naturally for Alvarez. Signed by the Blue Jays out of Venezuela in 2006, Alvarez was a lot easier to keep under wraps in rookie ball, compiling a 2-6, 5.63 record over two seasons in the Dominican Summer League and Gulf Coast League. Those days are long gone now.

"He can do everything on the mound," Lansing pitching coach Antonio Caceres said. "He can hold runners. He's very athletic, he can field his position. There's no one thing I don't like about this kid. He's young, he's strong, and he's just going to get better. He's better every time."

Shaping Up

While Alvarez took his lumps in the rookie leagues, his struggles were largely attributed to the mental side of pitching. He was prone to having his composure break down, especially when runners got on. He would try to overthrow and his mechanics would break down.

"My mechanics last year were out of control," Alvarez said through a translator. "I couldn't command the baseball, overthrowing. This year, I'm able to throw strikes more consistently."

Alvarez didn't look like a player ready for a full-season league at that point, but the Blue Jays challenged him with the assignment nonetheless. Alvarez has handled the task beautifully, acclimating himself to the MWL's longer, more rigorous schedule, improving his conditioning and getting into the routine of going out every fifth day.

Having a Spanish-speaking pitching coach in Caceres has helped Alvarez get comfortable as well. But as important as Alvarez's maturity on the four days between starts has been to his development, his work on that fifth day hasn't been bad either.

Alvarez attacks hitters, pounding the lower half of the strike zone with sinking four-seam fastballs consistenly clocking in at 90-94 mph, and can touch 96. He can also run his two-seam fastball up to 93. His power fastballs are complemented by a changeup and curveball, and it's the changeup that's emerged as his best secondary offering.

The key to Alvarez's changeup hasn't so much been its velocity, which is usually 86-88 mph, a bit firm, but rather its movement. Caceres said the movement on Alvarez's changeup is hard to describe, while one opposing MWL manager said it moves almost like a screwball. Alvarez is able to generate the same arm speed for the changeup as he does for the fastball, and no matter how it's been getting from the mound to the plate, the pitch has beguiled opposing hitters all season.

"He's got a good feel for (the changeup)," Lansing manager Clayton McCullough said. "He can throw it in the strike zone. When he's on and everything's right, it's got good late action at the plate. He has confidence to throw it to lefthanded and righthanded hitters. It's a pitch that doesn't let those guys dig in there and sit on his fastball."

The curveball is another story. Caceres said the team took away Alvarez's curveball last year in order to emphasize his changeup. Now Alvarez and Caceres are working to get it back.

"Right now, he's got two plus pitches," Caceres said. "He's going to need a third pitch to go to Double-A and to have success in the big leagues. We're working so hard on his curveball. It's coming. It's getting better every time out. He's getting a feel for it. It's a matter of time now."

Cool Under Pressure

The mental side of Alvarez's game has stepped up as well, another product of his more mature approach.

"Henderson is now starting to pay attention to hitters as we see a team and we've played them multiple times, and he's facing them again," McCullough said. "He's starting to remember guys and remember how they've attacked him, which is something that's going to bode well for him down the road. That's something he's going to have to be able do."

Alvarez has answered questions about his mental toughness, earning praise for his ability to buckle down and pitch with men on base, a far cry from the rap on him before the season as being a pitcher whose composure could break down under pressure.

Caceres recalled a recent start of Alvarez's when he faced heavy hitting Great Lakes on July 3. The Loons boasted an older lineup that included MWL home run leader Kyle Russell. No problem. Alvarez held Great Lakes to one run on four hits over six innings, striking out five. Three of those hits were infield hits.

McCullough recalls another game, a start May 7 against Peoria in which Alvarez fired a complete game, holding the Chiefs to one run on four hits and needed less than 90 pitches to finish the job. That start kicked off a streak in which Alvarez held opponents to one run or less in four consecutive starts.

A couple of rough starts right before the MWL's all-star break bumped his ERA up from 2.93 to 3.88, but he got back on track quickly, allowing only one earned run in his first two starts after the Lugnuts returned to action.

Caceres went so far as to call Alvarez the best righthaned pitching prospect in the organization, high praise for a pitcher so young and far from the big leagues, but it's an opinion few opponents in the Midwest League would probably disagree with. Not that any of them are anxious to get another look at him.

"Even the other teams are like, 'Who's pitching tonight? Alvarez? We're screwed,'" Caceres said. "'Henderson Alvarez? We're screwed today.' That's how good he is.
"All of a sudden he throws his changeup 3-2 and they're like 'Where'd that come from?' The hitter ain't got no chance."